Looking Ahead to Week Seven

Week Seven is already upon us.  Football season flies by.  Here are four games that deserve a little extra attention:

Minnesota Vikings (5-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-2) – Early Sunday

One week into the season the Philadelphia Eagles traded an extra quarterback named Sam Bradford to a team (Minnesota) that had just lost its starting quarterback for the season.  With command of the offense fully given to rookie signal caller Carson Wentz, the Eagles won their first three games convincingly, before coming back down to earth the last two weeks.

Now at 3-2 and already 1.5 games behind the front running Cowboys, the Eagles are preparing to face the Vikings and the QB they traded away.

That’s the 5-0 Vikings, if you please.  As pleased as the Eagles have been with Wentz, the Vikings have been just as pleased with Bradford. Wentz has completed 65% of his passes.  Bradford has completed 70.4% of his.  Wentz has averaged 7.55 yards per pass attempt, while Bradford has averaged 7.92.  Wentz gets a touchdown on 4.5% of his passes – just slightly behind Bradford’s 4.8%.  Wentz has thrown only one interception all year – which is exactly one more than Bradford has thrown.  Wentz’ passer rating is an excellent 99.9 – pretty close to Bradford’s 109.8.

Both have played very well.  But the stories in both Philadelphia and Minnesota have been on the defensive side.  The Vikings have yet to allow more than 16 points in a game.  They are the league’s top scoring defense and second overall in yardage allowed (number 4 against the run and number 6 against the pass).  They have allowed only 7 touchdowns in five games.

The Eagles looked like that same team through four weeks, but were a little exposed last week as they spit up 230 rushing yards (and 493 yards of total offense) in a 27-20 loss to Washington.

It’s still early in the season, but this game will let us know a little better who Philadelphia really is.  And, maybe a little better who Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz are.

New England Patriots (5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) – Late Sunday

This one was going to be a great game.  Perennial contenders in New England and Pittsburgh set to face off in a game with serious playoff implications.  After doing without their All-Everything quarterback for the season’s first four weeks, Tom Brady has returned with a vengeance as the Patriots have blown by Cleveland and Cincinnati these last two weeks.  Brady has completed 76.0% of his passes and carries a passer rating of 135.5 into this matchup.

For their part, after a humbling defeat at the hands of the Eagles, the Steelers had bounced back to trounce the Chiefs and the Jets behind their elite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  But Ben’s knee injury in last week’s surprising loss to Miami has re-written the script for this game.

Into the breach is third-year pro Landry Jones, veteran of 56 NFL regular season passes and five more at the end of last year’s messy divisional round win against Cincinnati.

The expected thing would be for Pittsburgh to focus on their ground attack.  The Patriots have been pretty stout against the run (allowing 92 yards a game and 3.7 per carry), and would likely be even better on Sunday if they thought they could focus on the stopping the Steelers’ ground attack.  This would have the domino effect of forcing Jones into passing situations.

Steeler Coach Mike Tomlin knows all of this.  And that’s why I believe he will put the ball in Landry Jones’ hands and let him fling the ball down the field.  In fact, I expect Tomlin’s most aggressive game plan of the year.

And I expect that New England’s Bill Belichick will expect the same thing.  If Tomlin and Jones succeed in lifting this wounded offense past the Patriots, they will have to do it with execution.  They won’t surprise the Patriots.

In the meantime, the Pittsburgh defense – which is allowing a completion percentage of 65.7 and has only dumped 8 quarterbacks all year will have to do much, much better than that against Brady and his receivers.  Otherwise the Steelers won’t keep this one close enough for their Landry strategy to have any effect.

San Diego Chargers (2-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-2)

For the moment, last Thursday, the Chargers saved their season with a gritty 21-13 conquest of the Denver Broncos.  At 2-4, their position is hardly enviable.  And now they must go on the road to face the electric offense that is the Atlanta Falcons.

With 199 points scored, the Falcons are the league’s top ranked offense both for yards and points per game (33.2).  One hundred and twenty-two of those points came in a three-week deluge against Oakland, New Orleans and Carolina.  While they have only managed 23 and 24 points the last two weeks respectively, it should be noted those games were against elite defenses in Denver and Seattle (both on the road).

And San Diego’s defense?  Before its stellar performance last Thursday, the Chargers had allowed 33, 14, 26, 35 and 34 points in their games.  They rank twenty-third in scoring defense (25.8 ppg) even after the Denver game.

But this number comes with an explanation.  In the 1-4 start, the Chargers invented ways to yield points – most frequently through creative fumbles.  The Chargers have fumbled the ball away 10 times so far this season – the most in the NFL.  Judged on their own merits, San Diego’s defense hasn’t been that bad.  The pass defense allows just 6.81 yards per attempted pass and just 10.6 yards per completion.  Only 3.8% of the passes thrown against them result in touchdowns, and San Diego has intercepted 7 passes – 2.7% of the passes attempted against them.  They face Atlanta with 14 sacks and an 85.4 passer rating against.  Against the run, they allow only 83.5 yards a game (the fifth best in the NFL) and 3.8 yards per attempt.  Solid numbers across the board.

But will they be solid enough to slow down the Falcons?  That is the question.

Another good question that may not be getting asked as much is: can Atlanta slow down San Diego’s offense?  While their offense has been lighting up scoreboards, the Falcon defense has been surrendering points almost as fast.  In their six games so far, Atlanta has held only one opponent (Denver) to less than 26 points and only one opponent (Denver again) to less than 261 passing yards.  They have allowed 166 points (27.7 per game) and carry the NFL’s twenty-fourth rated defense into the contest against the Chargers.  Opposing passers have flourished against the Falcon defense to the tune of a 99.1 passer rating and a 68.5% completion percentage.

And San Diego and quarterback Phillip Rivers are more than capable of exploiting that weakness.  The Chargers – who have the league’s #3 scoring offense (28.8 ppg) have scored at least 21 points in every game so far and have been over 30 three times.  Rivers comes into the matchup having completed 135 passes at a 67.2% rate.  He has thrown for 1647 yards, averaging 8.19 yards per attempt and 12.2 yards per completion.  His 3 interceptions are offset by his 12 touchdown passes.  His passer rating is an excellent 105.9.

The way this plays out on paper is two explosive offenses having their way with two less than stellar defenses.  San Diego’s defense is notably better than Atlanta’s, but the Falcon’s offense is more diversified.  The Falcons are the home team, but the Chargers have to have this game.

There is something going on with the Chargers.  I hope to write more about them tomorrow. Their season could not have started out any worse.  Between their own fourth quarter collapses and an injured reserve list that already has 14 names on it – many of them prime contributors like Manti Te’o, Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen – 2016 has been a nightmare.  But in spite of all that, they are hanging together.  The AFC West is going to be a wild ride this year, and won’t be decided early.  If San Diego can stay relevant, it’s hard to say how things could yet play out.

Winning this game – if they can manage that – will be a huge step in that direction.

Seattle Seahawks (4-1) at Arizona Cardinals (3-3) – Sunday Night

The Seahawks got bumped from the ranks of the unbeaten fairly early – an exceedingly ugly 9-3 loss to the LA Rams.  This followed an unimpressive 12-10 conquest of the Miami Dolphins.  Seattle didn’t look so hot coming out of the gate.

The Arizona Cardinals (who, you’ll remember, played in the NFC Championship game last year) also struggled at the beginning of the year.  They lost 3 of their first 4, scoring less than 22 points in each of the three losses.

Since then, both teams have righted their course.  The Seahawks have toppled San Francisco (37-18), the New York Jets (27-17) and the Falcons (26-24).  They have resumed their customary spot as the top ranked defense (in yards allowed) – number three against the run.  In five games, only the 49ers have more than 64 yards running the ball against the Seahawks.

But Seattle’s own running game has been largely absent.  With Marshawn Lynch retired and Thomas Rawls out with a broken fibula, the ‘Hawks rank twenty-fifth in rushing, averaging just 88.8 yards on the ground per game.  They totaled just 138 rushing yards in their last two games.

This has had an unbalancing effect on the offense, forcing them into being more of a pass-first offense.  Nonetheless, they have adapted and – with quarterback Russell Wilson and his 97.0 passer rating leading the way – have scored 90 points in the last three games.

Among the NFL’s 3-3 teams (there are six of them) Arizona gets my vote as the most dangerous.  They boast a solid run defense (allowing 104 yards a game) backed by an elite pass defense.  The passer rating against them of 65.8 is second in the NFL, barely behind the Vikings 65.3 rating.  They also rank second in yards per pass (6.05) and third in lowest completion percentage against (58.2).  They are also tied for third in sacks with 19.

The inconsistency in Arizona has been with the offense.  After the best year of his career in 2015 (his passer rating was 104.6) quarterback Carson Palmer has been hot and cold so far in 2016.  In the most indicative two-game span, he followed a 304-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 40-7 win against Tampa Bay with a 4-interception game in a 33-18 loss in Buffalo.

But the difference for Arizona in the last two games (33-21 over San Fran and 28-3 over the Jets) has been the re-discovered running game.  They ground up the 49ers to the tune of 172 yards and then followed that with 171 more against the Jets.

All of a sudden, the Cardinals have the fourth-ranked run offense in football.  Probably this showdown in the desert will be decided by the clash between Arizona’s run game and Seattle’s run defense.  If the Cardinals can punch their way through the Seahawks’ run defense, they will pretty much control the game.  If, however, Seattle smothers the running game, it will force Palmer into the air.  And the Arizona passing attack has been far too error prone this year to be able to beat Seattle and their secondary alone.

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